Reports have emerged that Arsenal have sacked Steve Bould from his position as u23 head coach, following over 30 years at the club.
The Athletic reported on Saturday that Steve Bould has been sacked by Arsenal, with the club’s academy manager Per Mertesacker set to appoint his replacement. Bould was working as the head coach of the u23 team.
After 30 years with Arsenal, it’s a shame to see Bould’s spell ending. As well as this most recent appointment with the u23s, he also worked as the first team’s assistant manager and led the u18s to a couple of league titles and an FA Youth Cup.
That’s not to mention his 11 years with Arsenal as a player, winning three league titles, three domestic cups, the European Cup Winners’ Cup, and a couple of Charity Shields.
The question now is why Bould’s time at the club had to come to an end.
The Athletic’s piece gives a couple of hints, citing a “friction between old and new methodology” and the pressure to keep producing top talents for the first team after Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe played such key roles this season. But I feel there’s more to it than that.
Purely looking at results, this was a very bad season for the u23s overall. There was one spell between November and mid-January where Arsenal won five games in a row, which was great. They won just one of the other 19 matches.
That form dragged the team back into a relegation battle that they failed to escape despite having multiple chances to do so, only finally sealing safety with an injury-time goal in the last match of the season.
Acadamy results may not matter, but relegation would have been really bad for the u23s, and there’s no arguing around that. Spurs, Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, and Liverpool all play in the top division, they all test their top talents against each other.
Missing out on those tests is going to negatively affect the development of Arsenal’s young players. Fortunately, it didn’t happen, but the fact they were still at risk going into injury time on the last day of their campaign was clearly less than ideal.
By the way, Arsenal were not up to scratch in those big-six clashes, failing to win a single one of them this season. At a certain point, that has to start getting in the heads of the young players.
More than just results, the performances largely weren’t good enough. Barring two big wins over Blackburn Rovers and Brighton, I struggle to think of many times the u23s even played well this campaign.
There were obviously some mitigating factors, that I’ve been over many times in the past. Arsenal sent a lot of players on loan, they had many injuries to key players, and there were at least a couple of contract dispute distractions.
I don’t want to play that down at all, all of that had a major impact. In some ways, the academy was also a victim of its own success, having promoted the likes of Saka and Smith Rowe to the first team when they could have been playing u23 football.
Even so, there were a lot of talented players still remaining. The u23s have a couple of top goalkeepers in Arthur Okonkwo and Karl Hein, they have an excellent centre-forward in Folarin Balogun, and up until his injury in March they had Ben Cottrell performing well in a creative midfield role.
On top of that, there’s Miguel Azeez and Kido Taylor-Hart, two u18s who have proven themselves above their own age group. Bould also regularly had first-team centre-backs available to him, from Pablo Mari to William Saliba, Calum Chambers, and Sokratis.
Reiss Nelson’s exclusion from the first team saw him drop down to the u23s, and he was often the best player on the pitch when he did.
The building blocks were there for better performances than we saw.
The counter-argument is that it’s not results or performances that matter, but development. Yet, again, I can’t see the evidence that Arsenal are succeeding on that front.
When I look at the u23s this season, I don’t see many players that have made a clear step forwards beyond the minimum you’d expect from being a year older.
Maybe we need more time to see the results of Bould’s influence, but right now quite a few players appear to be stagnating.
I don’t want to mislead you, there are certainly some players who will be grateful to Bould for his contributions to their development.
Zak Swanson was remarkably consistent under Bould last season, which prepared him well for a loan spell this campaign. Though that eventual loan was marred by homesickness and a serious injury, Swanson undoubtedly found his feet with Bould’s help.
Zane Monlouis was an u18 at the start of the season, but his progression to the u23s has seen him receiving a first England u19 call-up this week. Similar is true for Daniel Oyegoke, who is in the England u19s as well after quite a few Arsenal u23 appearances.
Then there’s Ryan Alebiosu, who played some of his best football with Bould in charge. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that all four of the above are defenders.
But I can’t point to an example like Joe Willock or Bukayo Saka under Freddie Ljungberg, two players who came on leaps and bounds in 2018/19 to the extent they were in the first team by the start of the next season.
None of this should be used as a reason to celebrate Bould’s departure.
What he’s given to the club is undeniable, and though I feel it was the right decision to part ways, that doesn’t mean anyone should pretend the 58-year-old is a poor coach. The tide had just turned against him this season.
If Bould had stayed on, I’m certain things would have improved next season. But the club clearly feel they’re better off making a change, and I can’t argue with that.
Arsenal’s u18 age group are hugely talented, and the club can’t dawdle on ensuring they have the right coach in charge for the next few seasons of their development.